Obama to lay down solar challenge to US companies

U.S. President Barack Obama will lend further credence to the claim that his administration is the most solar-friendly ever when he challenges private companies throughout the country to step up their use of solar power.

As part of a new White House initiative to back solar power in the U.S., Obama will today host a Solar Summit aimed at celebrating successful solar efforts and delivering further government support for the industry.

As the fastest-growing renewable energy sector in the U.S., Obama has been eager to leverage the power of his office to deliver further support for solar, targeting installation goals that have often been dampened in Congress. Although solar PV only accounts for roughly 1% of America’s electricity generation, Obama and the White House administration have drafted ambitious plans to increase its share across all federal buildings.

Further efforts to make it easier for state, local and tribal governments to augment their own solar footprints will be supported by the launch of a $15 million Solar Market Pathways program, which will be overseen by the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the latter of which will donate its staff’s time and expertise to the White House to ensure the administration hits its goal of installing 100 MW of renewable energy at federally subsidized housing by 2020.

The Solar Summit will be held at the White House today, April 17, and will be led by energy secretary Ernest Moniz and White House counselor John D. Podesta, who will reaffirm Obama’s plea for more private sector solar commitments.

"Now is the time for solar," said Anya Schoolman, executive director at Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, Community Power Network, which helps communities build renewable energy projects. "The costs are affordable, in reach of middle America and above. We know how to do it now, we know how to scale it, and we kind of just need people to let it go and encourage it," added Schoolman, who will be honored at the Summit for her solar work with communities in the city.

Incentivized for solar

The White House states that the average price of solar panels in the U.S. has fallen by more than 60% since 2010, largely thanks to a raft of federal- and state-backed incentives and tax credits designed to make installing solar more affordable. Mostly, said Schoolman, these incentives have benefited individual homeowners, many of whom do not see a return on their investment for many years.

In states with high electricity costs, owners of large structures – such as affordable housing associations – have yet to really be incentivized to pursue the solar option. The chief executive of Boston Community Capital, Elyse Cherry, told the Washington Post that solar tax credits do not work for affordable housing because of high upfront costs and eventual savings spread out over a long period of time, adding that she is "delighted" at the White House’s forthcoming efforts to make it easier for housing groups to access affordable solar energy.

"We think lower-income communities are entitled to exactly the same services and availability to technology and energy sources as their wealthier neighbors," she said. At state level, there are examples of innovative funding models delivering solar access to commercial tenants, including one particularly novel scheme in Connecticut. There, the state has created a green bank with taxpayers’ dollars, utilizing these funds to offer 20-year loans for building owners keen on accessing capital for solar projects.

At federal level, solar supporters are united in their belief that, despite previous presidential antipathy toward the industry, the current Obama administration is showing encouraging commitment to solar. “Without question, the Obama administration has been the most solar-friendly ever,” said Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) president and chief executive, Rhone Resch, adding that solar is no longer viewed as an “afterthought” in the White House corridors of power.

"Today, solar is the fastest-growing source of renewable energy in the United States, accounting for nearly 30% of all new electric generation capacity installed in 2013 – second only to natural gas," added Resch. "In fact, more solar has been brought online in the past 18 months than in the 30 prior years combined. All totaled, solar is generating enough electricity to effectively power nearly 2.5 million homes. We’re no longer an ‘afterthought’ when it comes to conversations about energy. We’re now a $14-billion-a-year industry, employing 143,000 Americans, and 2014 promises to be another record-breaking year.”

In the army now

One area where solar has surged to the forefront of government policy is in the military. The U.S. Defense Department is the largest single energy consumer in the country, and is targeted with the most ambitious renewable energy generation goal of all: 3 GW of clean energy capacity installed on military installations in the U.S. by 2025.

This week, work began on the largest solar array in the U.S. military – a 20 MW PV plant at the Fort Huachuca army base in Arizona. Once complete later this year, the solar plant will provide around 25% of the base’s energy requirements.

"Energy is an installation priority," said Major Gen. Robert Ashley, Fort Huachuca’s commanding general. "The project goes beyond the megawatts produced. It reflects our continued commitment to southern Arizona and energy security, and will provide reliable access to electricity for daily operations and missions moving forward."

Earlier this year, the Defense Department revealed that it had installed 125.5 MW of solar power capacity at its U.S. military bases – a figure that accounts for 33% of the military’s total renewable energy capacity. Among the various defense departments, it is the U.S. Air Force that currently boasts the largest single solar installation, a 16.4 MW PV plant located in Tucson, Arizona.

The Fort Huachuca installation, once complete, will usurp that plant at the apex of the military’s fast-growing solar pile.